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Zoom through a Stunning Panorama of the Milky Way

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The Spitzer Space Telescope'ss GLIMPSE project has created a huge zoomable panorama of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE Team

The Spitzer Space Telescope'ss GLIMPSE project has created a huge zoomable panorama of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE Team

Do yourself a favor. Don’t read this article just yet—first, take a moment to zoom around this incredible panorama of our galaxy and soak in the splendor: http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/glimpse360/aladin.

Okay, are you back? Now we can talk science. The photograph you just saw—actually, a mosaic of two million photographs—represents the infrared view of the disk of the Milky Way from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. This high-resolution, 360-degree portrait of our galaxy took Spitzer 4,142 hours (172 days) of exposure time to create, and the image’s 20 gigapixels would need a billboard as big as the Rose Bowl Stadium to display the printed photo, scientists said.

The image is the product of the Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) project, which seeks to make a thorough map of the central plane of our galaxy to help astronomers map its contours and understand our cosmic neck of the woods. “We don’t really know how big our galaxy is,” says GLIMPSE co-leader Edward Churchwell, an astronomer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We are trying to determine where the edge is, and get a reasonable handle on the extent of the stellar population in our galaxy.”

Aside from eye candy, just what are we looking at in GLIMPSE’s image? The swirls of pinkish light are gas and dust that’s been lit-up by powerful stars, while the bright violet and blue studs are some of the 200 million individual stars catalogued by GLIMPSE. “All those bright patches and bubbles are basically areas surrounding hot stars that produce a lot of radiation and blow particles out, which bang into the ambient gas around the star,” Churchwell says.

Spitzer’s infrared eyes provide a view we could never have in optical light, which cannot pass through the clouds of dust that riddle our galaxy. “The mid-infrared is pretty much transparent to the interstellar dust,” Churchwell says, “and as a consequence we can see pretty much across the galaxy.”

No matter where you look and how far you zoom in the image, you’ll be hard pressed to find a blank bit of space without stars. The number of stars visible in the panorama is mind-boggling, even more so when you remember that each of these belongs to our home galaxy alone.

The astronomers used the GLIMPSE data to create the most accurate map yet of the large bar of stars that lies in the center of our galaxy. Central bars—dense, rectangular groupings of stars at galactic cores—are common, but not uniform, among spiral galaxies, and until the GLIMPSE infrared data, the existence of a bar in the Milky Way was not certain. “We demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s there,” Churchwell says, “and it’s essentially larger than what people had hypothesized earlier on.”

Even the scientists who work with GLIMPSE day in and day out say they are sometimes taken aback by how beautiful their data set is. “The very first image we ever took just blew me away,” Churchwell says. “I marvel at the complexity of the part of the universe that we live in.”

Clara Moskowitz About the Author: Clara Moskowitz is Scientific American's associate editor covering space and physics. Follow on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bgrnathan 10:17 am 03/22/2014

    SCIENCE SHOWS THAT THE UNIVERSE CANNOT BE ETERNAL because it could not have sustained itself eternally due to the law of entropy (increasing net energy decay, even in an open system). Einstein showed that space, matter, and time all are physical and all had a beginning. Space even produces particles because it’s actually something, not nothing. Even time had a beginning! Time is not eternal.

    The law of entropy doesn’t allow the universe to be eternal. If the universe were eternal, everything, including time (which modern science has shown is as physical as mass and space), would have become totally entropied by now and the entire universe would have ended in a uniform heat death a long, long time ago. The fact that this hasn’t happened already is powerful evidence for a beginning to the universe.

    Popular atheistic scientist Stephen Hawking admits that the universe had a beginning and came from nothing but he believes that nothing became something by a natural process yet to be discovered. That’s not rational thinking at all, and it also would be making the effect greater than its cause to say that nothing created something. The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. What about the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”)? The Higgs boson does not create mass from nothing, but rather it converts energy into mass. Einstein showed that all matter is some form of energy.

    The supernatural cannot be proved by science but science points to a supernatural intelligence and power for the origin and order of the universe. Where did God come from? Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.

    EXPLAINING HOW AN AIRPLANE WORKS doesn’t mean no one made the airplane. Explaining how life or the universe works doesn’t mean there was no Maker behind them. Natural laws may explain how the order in the universe works and operates, but mere undirected natural laws cannot explain the origin of that order. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    WHAT IS SCIENCE? Science simply is knowledge based on observation. No one observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith. The issue is which faith the scientific evidence best supports.

    Some things don’t need experiment or scientific proof. In law there is a dictum called prima facie evidence. It means “evidence that speaks for itself.”

    An example of a true prima facie would be if you discovered an elaborate sand castle on the beach. You don’t have to experiment to know that it came by design and not by the chance forces of wind and water.

    If you discovered a romantic letter or message written in the sand, you don’t have to experiment to know that it was by design and not because a stick randomly carried by wind put it there. You naturally assume that an intelligent and rational being was responsible.

    I encourage all to read my popular Internet articles: NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION and HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

    Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tuned 10:33 am 03/22/2014

    @bgrnathan :
    Blah blah.
    The collapse and bang could happen in and endless cycle given infinity, you don’t know.
    Neither religion nor science will ever know the answer to that one, they weren’t there at the time.
    Only “God” could if he exists, and he ain’t sayin’.
    If you know so much, then why are “miracles” rare? Where’s the morality in suffering?
    Personally I do think some sort of “God” is going on, but I don’t like it.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tuned 10:38 am 03/22/2014

    I have always thought the universe is beautiful.
    Too bad life can’t keep up its’ end.
    You have to admit beauty in life is the worm on the hook, a genetic ploy to help the species but not necessarily the individual.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jtdwyer 7:59 am 03/23/2014

    Re. a cyclic universe, see http://www.nature.com/news/gravitational-wave-finding-causes-spring-cleaning-in-physics-1.14910
    Its subheading states:
    “Big Bang findings would strengthen case for multiverse and all but rule out a ‘cyclic Universe’.”
    BTW, I do not agree that the recent CMB polarization finding strengthens support for an inflationary multiverse (see my comment posted there).

    Link to this
  5. 5. dadster 8:51 am 03/25/2014

    All evidence points at one thing viz, there is more to the universe / cosmos than matter . More to cosmos than dreamed of by particle physicists or string theorists .
    Matter is energy concentrate. Space-time fabric is an addendum to or constituent of matter .The distinguishing feature of mass is its inertial mass .

    Radiating energy by itself do not demand neither space nor time to exist unless when it comes into contact with its own lumpen non- radiating bulk called matter.

    Radiation is sensed only when it gets reflected or interacted with mass . Otherwise there is no way to sense radiation although it might be interfering or superimposing or getting ” entangled ” with other radiations or with aspects of itself . We can sense or measure radiation only through mass , but that doesn’t mean radiation and mass are the same , basically they might be energy- wise to some extend , but not in form or in itheir characteristic defining properties.

    Entropy is applicable only to heat energy or to electromagnetic energy in its degenerate form . But is entropy applicable to organizing energy like radiating energy at its more concentrated aspects like say, dark energy or dark matter or when its propagating at tachyon-speeds much above the speed of light . The limitation to the speed of light is because of the limitation of measuring with material devices and by associating its speed with permitivity and permeability of empty space , the concept of space itself being dependent on mass .
    Its now a round about argument or a tautology and has little validity .

    Space and time do not , need not , exist for radiating energy or just ever vibrating energy not propogating anywhere , to exist in its non- propagating mode in quantum vacuum which is the cosmic energy sink where matter has no place to be . Ergo , nor for time too.

    Our universe , its dimensions and all the phenomena that we sense or models of it with mathematical logic is all just random vibrations incident in this pure unadulterated non- propogating energy sink .

    This brings us to ask what it means to say e =mc^2 ? It just gives the maximum nuclear and electromagnetic energy that we can eek out of ordinary matter . But it doesn’t mean that matter is associated with only nuclear or electromagnetic energies . in fact , matter is associated with something more .

    This fact is inherent , in a way in the inequality e > mc^2 itself . c, being constant there is lots of area above the straight line graph of e=mc^2 , the straight line with a slope of inverse tan c^2 ( c not being infinity ) . This would also indicate speeds greater than c exists and is represented in the graph of e =mc^2 although no one seems to have yet gone into that area so far.

    Any conglomeration of matter or its properties do not account for the phenomena of “life” except to say that after some period of time by magic life will spring out from certain types of matter under certain temperature and pressure and other environmental conditions.

    While that is one vague way of accounting for the phenomena of life, another way is to postulate that life is the software and matter is the hardware . The source of energy for the creation of software is different from the electromagnetic energy from which ordinary matter is formed.

    Lets call that energy , BIO- ENERGY and, let the physicists stand back and let the biologists and life scientists work on that . Let them also have more of research grants allotted to them than for the particle physicists who have long been trying to sort out the phenomena of life through particle physics all these years but in vain.
    Let’s give a chance to bio- scientists to have a go at the phenomena of life and to deal with life independent of matter.

    Link to this
  6. 6. hkraznodar 5:44 pm 03/27/2014

    Thank you religious zealots for your interesting tirades about why you are right and everyone else is wrong. Too bad JT tried to ruin it by addressing actual science and included an actual citation.

    A simple astronomy blog post is not an appropriate platform for self aggrandizing mental diarrhea.

    Link to this
  7. 7. lesizz 11:16 pm 03/27/2014

    Science is a METHOD.

    Climate change deniers who make claims of “junk science” don’t know what they are talking about, unless they are referring to the scientific study of junk, as in a landfill.

    If the method is not scientific, it’s not science at all.
    ————————————————-

    Presume that there is a creative, governing consciousness of the universe, and that we may refer to her as “God”.

    Science — Before the widespread practice of science mankind had absolutely no idea of the workings behind the physical processes of the universe. Certainly, the spiritual leaders were of no help here and only led the knowledge of mankind astray.

    Science — Science is revealing the processes of the physical world to mankind, and in doing so has revealed the most fantastic beauty mankind has ever witnessed, be it the extremely complex workings of a mere cell, or the expansive scattering of matter throughout the known universe. Witness the graphic that accompanies this article.

    Presuming that there is this overseeing consciousness, science is not at odds.

    Science is obviously a gift to mankind from God.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Peter Sommerville 1:29 am 03/29/2014

    As a scientist all I can say is this is a magnificent presentation of our galaxy and highlights how little we really know and how much we have to learn.

    Link to this
  9. 9. NoamI 4:14 pm 04/2/2014

    I wish the GLIMPSE picture had some coordinates, since
    I don’t know where familiar objects are in the IR.

    Link to this

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